In February, the spring season is slightly over a month away but already the time of coupling becomes evident. Down by the riverside, the winter day looked stormy with dark clouds cloaking the landscape. The jaunty Bufflehead flock was gathered in the lagoon, diving and flitting about in their snug winter-time group, undaunted by weather, and united in the face of adversity.
But there were only 12, and I had been accustomed to seeing 14. Had a hunter or predator reduced their ranks? Then below the pool barrier, I saw a pair of the ducks off to the side as if talking about future plans, the flight north, and the dispersion of the flock. It happens every year. Whatever the reason various bird species flock together in the winter, they surely will separate into individual pairs to conduct family affairs.
We see those great flocks of blackbirds and crows around the Sacramento Valley in the winter, and you see the redwings converging on a food bonanza near Woodland when the grain company piles great mountains of milo in their lots. Crows merge by the thousands in the Marysville fields, just as there are massive flocks of ducks and geese in the Sacramento Valley marshes. One watery field can feature 10,000 Tundra Swans lazing and feeding in a valley that seldom has ice on the water. In those masses are individual birds, and somehow, a pair gets together and makes plans for the future.
Within the human range of senses, we are shut out of subtle details. To us, those birds of a feather look identical, and we wonder how they can keep track of a partner in all that confusion. Undoubtedly, smell and sharp vision plays a part in the acquaintance process, but somehow a pair of those handsome redwings will find an separate niche and build the nest and raise the young.
The penguin colonies in the Antarctic pack tightly and confront furious storms and cold weather, and in all that complexity, lay a single egg and keep it heated until it hatches. It would seem like utter chaos when the parent returns to feed the insulated infant, but somehow the proper families connect.
An item that Rachel Carson mentioned in a story about Sanderlings startled me. Those tiny shorebirds that run rapidly at the edge of waves, and definitely do more leg work than wing swings, can migrate 8,000 miles to the Arctic! These little birds winter as far south as Patagonia, at the extreme southern end of South America, and in the spring they migrate northward, most of them beyond the Arctic Circle, and some to within a few miles of the North Pole. Carson says: "When they first arrive in the Arctic the snow and ice have not melted, food is scarce, and late-season blizzards may take a heavy toll." Many succeed in hatching young, and as soon as the babies can take care of themselves, the old birds leave for the south! The young remain behind until their wing feathers grow strong enough for the long journey, and then they too travel forth without parental guidance or road maps!!
What extraordinary ability enables that young sanderling to find its way and then join in with a flock of birds thousands of miles away? Do they find their parents? We can pose the same question for the migrant ducks. How do those goldeneyes get together in the Canadian wildlands, decide when to depart, and find their way to places like the Lake Merritt Refuge in the middle of Oakland, CA.??? I worked there 32 years, and I never ceased to be astounded at the reliable reappearance of the wild fowl.
The Feather River quail and turkey flocks also form complexes of 30 or 40 in the winter. Then in the spring, it is back to the pair business of reproduction and the secrecy of hidden nests. I haven't yet found a turkey nest, although I blundered onto a parent relaxing on a sunny hillside with a dozen two-week-old babies. That was a moment of high anxiety with birds melting into the thickets. I have also surprised quail flocks and watched as the buffy babies frozen on the leaves. There they remain even though the stalking foot comes close. That is discipline.
Some kinds of animals remain in packed social orders continually. Bees and ants come to mind. There is little room for private affairs in a bee colony. Other insects like praying mantis lead their solitary ways, pairing off briefly and then the female lays those neat cylinders of eggs - the only time the mantis are bunched together. Some animals like mountain lions are such individuals you wonder how mating pairs find one another. Wolves pack together in snowy woods but break away in pairs for the time of the den.
Up and down the list of nearly 9,000 bird species, 4,000 mammals - 1.7 million total species on earth - we find that each kind have their own way of clan interaction. There is such a wonderful variety of life and life styles on earth, one can never grow weary of watching and wondering.
© 1999 Rex Burress
February 10, 1999